I realize that, like most Presidents, Bush’s moon base concept was more theoretical than practical; an unfunded pipe dream designed more to achieve reelection than to actually establish a serious presence on the moon, with all that that entails.
That didn’t stop me from being curiously livid, however, when Obama nixed the idea in favor of a mission to Mars. That whole concept had the vague aura of playground boasting, of “Nuh uh! I’m not gonna go to the Moon! The Moon is for wusses! I’m gonna go to Mars!!”
It’s equally un(der)funded of course, the kind of election posturing that Presidents make from time to time, much like balancing the budget or reducing the deficit, setting in motion “a plan” that will theoretically come to fruition long after that President has left office.
The thing is that a manned mission to Mars is kinda stupid.
Recent Hollywood films aside, the cold reality of the situation is that until we can move vast numbers of people to Mars, it serves relatively little purpose. There are some scientific gains to be made, certainly, but it’s highly unlikely that anything we learn on Mars would be applicable to technology that would improve the lives of people on Earth.
That’s not to say that pure science is useless, but it is to say that pure science should take a backseat to useful science, particularly when that useful science will make the pure science a hell of a lot cheaper.
Hence, my longing for a Moon Base.
The Moon, relatively speaking, is just next door. It has a very shallow gravity well, turns out to be chock full of things we can use to make rocket fuel, and while we may have been there before, because of those first two factors it would serve as an excellent jumping off point to get further into the Solar System.
While efforts from SpaceX and Blue Origin towards the development of truly reusable launch platforms will go a long way towards improving the practicality of space travel, the distances involved in moving people between the stars makes such travel incredibly dangerous. Radiation is a constant concern, the negative effects of zero gravity on the human body another.
Skipping the Moon in a rush towards Mars means taking the trip at a vastly reduced speed, barring some incredibly unlikely advance in engine technology. The longer you spend in space, the more time you have to be irradiated, get caught in a solar storm, suffer the debilitating effects of weightlessness, and so on. While those issues can all be addressed by careful design features, each of those features adds mass to the spacecraft, which must be lifted into orbit by rockets, and to move that heavier spacecraft at the same speed, requires more fuel, which requires yet more launches, and so on.
The faster the spacecraft is, the fewer of these events it is likely to face. To get the spacecraft moving faster, we need more crap to shoot out its tailpipe.
Hence, a moon base. A moon fuel refinery and launch facility, to be more exact. The exact methods of how you would build such a place can vary, as can the means by which you get the fuel into Earth orbit, but once you build yourself a gas station, your options regarding travel to the outer planets expand significantly.
Sure, the notion of a lunar gas station isn’t exactly a sexy one. It won’t be some grand scientific experiment, no colossal achievement, boldly going where no man has gone before.
It would just make those things vastly easier in the long run, and if you’re going to be putting people into space at all, you ought to be thinking long term. Like, just in case something awful happens to Earth kind of long term. Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot of reasons to send people out there; it’s enormously expensive, they can’t do all that much more than a robot can, and robots don’t leave grieving widows.
And while there’s something to be said for the grand pioneering spirit, there’s also the practical realization that you can do a hell of a lot more pioneering if you can bring along five times as many tools.